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Four prisoners dead in six weeks: the crisis unfolding in San Diego county jails

Published: April 20, 2019
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On 18 March, Maria Palacios Escalera got a call from a doctor at the UC San Diego hospital in southern California. Her son, Ivan Ortiz, an inmate at San Diego’s Central jail, had tried to kill himself, he said. Doctors had been able to revive him, but he had a weak pulse and his brain had been deprived of oxygen. She should make her way over to the hospital as soon as possible.

Escalera and her daughter Priscilla rushed to the hospital, but when they got there, a deputy with the San Diego sheriff’s department told them they’d need to get a permit to see Ivan – visitors must obtain a permit from the jail’s watch commander to visit an inmate who’s been hospitalized, even if the inmate is “in grave condition”, department policy says.

So they headed to the Central jail. Once there, they waited 40 minutes before a man – Escalera was too frantic to ask his name – came out and told her the hospital had just called to say Ivan had died.

Ortiz, 26, was the fourth person to die in a San Diego jail in less than six weeks.

The recent deaths have reignited long-running concerns about medical and mental healthcare inside the jails of California’s second most populous county, and the ways the system puts at risk some of the most vulnerable prisoners.

The jail system’s inmate death toll stands at 135 dead over the last decade, according to public records. Between 2000 and 2007, San Diego had the second highest death rate of inmates among the state’s large jail systems, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Since then, those numbers have only increased. A majority of the 135 deaths involve inmates who struggled with serious mental illness. Some prisoners died of a lack of medical care. And many took their own lives.

San Diego county jails particularly struggle with preventing inmate suicides, a 2018 report by Disability Rights California, a watchdog organization, found. During the three-year span of the investigation, more inmates killed themselves in San Diego’s jail system than in LA county jails, despite LA’s inmate population being three times the size. The report found the San Diego jails struggled with an over-incarceration of people with mental health-related disabilities, failed to provide adequate mental health treatment to inmates, did not have in place appropriate suicide prevention practices and lacked oversight.


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